SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Trevor Ruhland expected to be Notre Dame’s starting center this season, right up until the medical staff told him in January his left knee is like that of an 80-year-old man and he probably shouldn’t play football anymore.
Bear in mind that Ruhland had endured a broken ankle, a broken elbow, a broken nose, torn pectoral muscles on both sides of his chest and a torn labrum in his right shoulder during his first four years at Notre Dame. Three surgeries on that knee had the Notre Dame training staff questioning if he could even make it through summer workouts after sitting out spring drills. There was a belief the knee needed to be replaced.
“Trevor Ruhland could have easily taken a pass on this and said, ‘I'm out,’” coach Brian Kelly said. “We thought he was going to be a medical redshirt, quite frankly. We thought that there was no way. But he wanted to play in his senior year. It was important to him.”
Kelly said earlier this season he’d likely have to keep Ruhland on a “pitch count” because of his health, but Ruhland was in for 93 plays against Virginia Tech three weeks ago, including quarterback Ian Book’s 7-yard TD run with 29 seconds left to give the Irish a 21-20 victory. He played 40 plays in the 52-20 victory last week over Navy before the coaches sat him in the third quarter.
As a freshman, Ruhland boasted he could do more than two dozen reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Now, he wouldn’t even try one.
“I’m in a maintain program in the weight room,” he said. “I don’t test it.”
Ruhland said his mother and father, Matt, an all-Big Ten defensive tackle at Iowa who played for the Buffalo Bills, have differing views on what he’s been through.
“My mom thinks I’m crazy. My dad thinks I’m soft,” Ruhland said, laughing.
The 6-foot-3, 292-pound graduate student from Cary, Illinois, northwest of Chicago, was the backup right guard until starter Tommy Kraemer sprained a knee ligament in the first half against Michigan last month. Ruhland started five games at guard last year when Alex Bars was injured.
Kelly said he knows Ruhland is always giving everything he’s got.
“Sometimes it doesn’t look as pretty as you want it to, but he’s pretty effective,” Kelly said.
The offensive line has had its ups and downs, helping the Irish amass 308 yards rushing in a 30-27 win over Southern California, but being held to 46 yards in a 23-17 loss at Georgia and 47 yards in an embarrassing 45-14 loss at Michigan. In addition to the injury to Kraemer, who could return for a bowl game, the Irish also lost starting right tackle Robert Hainsey to a broken ankle against Virginia Tech. He was replaced by Josh Lugg, who had been expected to help Ruhland at right guard.
“I think the biggest thing is just getting some chemistry going,” Ruhland said. “You could tell when we watched the Virginia Tech game, especially with me and Josh, there are some things we need to communicate better. Every week that’s gotten better.”
Teammates say they find Ruhland’s efforts inspirational.
“We know he’s going through pain every day and every practice. It gives us no excuses,” wide receiver Chase Claypool said.
Ruhland will play his final game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday when the 15th-ranked Fighting Irish (8-2) host Boston College (5-5). Despite all the injuries, Ruhland realizes there are others who have been through more. He said the injuries have made him a better player.
“I think it’s made me stronger mentally and given me more time to work on other things,” he said. “Yeah, I can’t just run people off the ball like I used to be able to do. But I’m smarter as a football player. I think better. I’m quicker. I’ve worked on certain things that have helped me scrape by.”
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